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Aigai: A city in the mountains of Aeolis. History and coinage.

The ruins of the ancient Aeolian city of Aigai (Aegae in Latin) are located half a dozen kilometers from the small Turkish village of Yuntdağıköseler, on the summit of a rocky mountainous area known in antiquity as "the Mountain of the Sun."

Photo 1.- The City-Wall of Aigai. Second half of the seventh century BC.


Aigai is mentioned by Herodotus and Strabo as one of the twelve largest cities founded by the Aeolian colonists. Although its legendary foundation dates from around 1100 BC, archaeological excavations have not found any vestige prior to the 8th century BC. Its location in a mountainous area, somewhat isolated from the coast where the rest of the Aeolian cities were raised (with the exception of Temnos), was emphasized by the ancient writers, being considered the reason why Aigai never reached a degree of development comparable to that of coastal cities.

Photo 2.- The magnificent exterior wall of the Aigai public market seen from its inside. Mid 2nd century BC.


During the first half of the sixth century BC Aigai was part of the extended kingdom of Lydia. Destroyed this one by the Achaemenids Persians in 546 BC, Aigai manages to resist the subsequent Persian onslaught and to maintain its independence, a success attributable both to its rugged location, difficult to capture, and to its relative poverty, which discouraged the use of large military resources in its conquest. Hardly anything is known of the evolution of Aigai during this historical period; only that around 469 BC the great Athenian stateman Themistocles passed through Aigai during his flight from Greece to Persia, being well received by a friend of his, resident in the city, named Nikogenes.

Photo 3.- Row of shops of the public market of Aigai with its door and window to the outside.


The conquest of Asia Minor by Alexander the Great in 334 BC returned Aigai to the Hellenic world. Its proximity to Pergamum would take it to enter the horizon of expansion of the Attalid kingdom; thus it would happen, in fact, towards 228 BC when Aigai was snatched to the Seleucid Empire by the Pergamon monarch Attalus I. Dead Seleucus III, the defeated Seleucid monarch, in 223 BC, his successor, Antiochus III, decides to relaunch the war against Pergamum by sending Aqueo, his best general, to fight in lands of Asia Minor. The following campaign would be a success for the Seleucids, recovering most of the lost territory at the hands of Attalus I, Aigai included. However, the characteristic instability of the Seleucid throne would weaken its northern border, allowing to Attalus I to take over again the control of the northwest of Asia Minor, this time definitively (218 BC). Aigai would remain, so, as a pergamene city until the disappearance of this kingdom in 133 BC.


Photo 4.- Interior of one of the market shops, with its door and window communicating this room with the correspondent rear storage space.


The period of pergamene sovereignty was the one of greater splendor for the aeolian city so much from the economic point of view as the cultural one. Pampered by the attalid kings, Aigai was endowed with a superb set of public buildings stylistically similar to those of the capital, Pergamon. This one brought upon the city the wrath of the bithinian monarch Prusias II: embarked on a hard war against the pergamene Attalus II since 156 BC. We know from the Greek historian Polybius that the troops of Prusias II entered by blood and fire into the Aeolis, razing the fields and hitting the main cities of the region, including Aigai, to which they caused serious damage. Only the firm intervention of the Republic of Rome would end the war, restoring the borders to the existing status quo before the conflict and forcing King Prusias to pay, among other compensations, a hundred silver talents to each one of the punished cities, Aigai among them.

Photo 5.- Retaining wall that holds the terracing of the southern sector of Aigai. Hellenistic Datation.


Aigai's coinage begins at the end of the 4th century BC in response to its recent inclusion in the economic flows of the alexandrine empire. It is a bulky series of moderate size bronzes, rather monotonous as far as iconography is concerned: bust of Apollo, the tutelary deity of the city, on obverse and goat's head on the reverse. It will be necessary to wait until the II century BC to see some new types appear: the complete goat or at least its forepart, the goddess Nike, bust of Athena, etc. In figure 1 we can see, to the left, an exemplar of the Apollo / goat head type and an exemplar of the Athena / Nike type to the right.

Figure 1.- Bronze coins minted in Aigai during Hellenistic times.


Aigai would not reach enough economic importance to coin silver until the middle of the second century BC. Effectively, towards 160 BC its mint strucks a series of tetradrachms of very good stylistic quality with bust of Apollo on obverse and a nude image of Zeus on reverse, with Greek legend AIΓAIEΩN (AIGAIEON) and monogram in the field, all inserted inside a crown of oak leaves. The volume of emission was quite low to the point that there are only known four obverse dies: enough for not much more than an issue of 80,000 exemplars. This indicates that Aigai, although prosperous, did not ever reach the wealth levels of the most flourishing cities in its surroundings. The coin in figure 2 will serve to illustrate the coin type we have just described.

Figure 2.- Silver tetradrachm coined in Aigai around 160 BC.


Like so many other micro-Asian cities, Aigai would pass into Roman rule as a result of the fulfillment of Attalus III's testament (133 BC). His becoming would continue in terms similar to those experienced under the attalid aegis: political importance at the local level and sufficient prosperity, without excesses. We know thanks to an gratitude inscription that Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus, proconsul of Asia between 46 and 44 BC, greatly benefited the city during his term. We also know that it was seriously damaged by the great earthquake of 17 AD, being rebuilt thanks to the generous economic support of Emperor Tiberius, in whose honor the grateful inhabitants of Aigai erected a statue of him.

Photo 6.- The Bouleterion de Aigai and its annexed commercial area (second and foreground respectively). Mid 2nd century BC.


The monetary emissions of the city during the high imperial centuries reflect a marked micro-Asian aesthetic and a quite local iconography, appearing the emperor of the moment on the obverse and, in general, divinities of the Greek pantheon on the reverse, especially Apollo: as we already said guardian divinity of the city, which was worshiped in the nearby sanctuary of Apollo Khresteiros. The last mintings of Aigai date from the reign of Gallienus (260-268 AD) or shortly after. The four coins of figure 3 constitute a brief summary of Aigai's numismatics. The first (top-left) is an AE16 coined in the name of Messalina, the second wife of Claudius, with the god Zeus on reverse. The second (top-right) shows on obverse the Caesars Titus and Domitian looking at each other and the god Apollo on reverse. For its part the third one (bottom-left) is a nice AE17 on behalf of Septimius Severus with Hercules on the reverse. Finally the fourth coin (bottom-right) is a splendid medallion of 50 mm in diameter, coined during the reign of Severus Alexander (obverse), on the reverse of which appears the facade of the temple where Apollo Khresterios was worshiped, some remains of which have been recently excavated.

Figure 3.- Bronze coins minted in Aigai in the Roman imperial era.


Archaeological excavations indicate that Aigai was abandoned at the end of the 3rd century AD. The truth is that among its ruins are not Christian elements that can be dated in the late Empire or the early Byzantine period. The process of abandonment was not slow and by parts as is usual in these cases but rapid, systematic and complete. In other words: it was a true evacuation in the face of the imminence of an attack by the Goth tribes that infested western Asia Minor at that time (it is the most probable hypothesis). For whatever reason the inhabitants of Aigai would not ever return to the city. Perhaps its inhospitable location on the summit of the "mountain of the sun" discouraged the authorities to revive the desolate settlement.

Photo 7.- High quality vaulted gallery in the theater of Aigai. 1-2 centuries AD (Roman times).


At the end of the 12th century, the Byzantine Empire decides to take advantage of the natural strength of the “mountain of the sun” by erecting a castle in the vicinity of the ancient theater. For a hundred years, human life will develop in the small settlement raised in the lee of this fortification. Lamentably, the fall of the territory under the horseshoes of the Turkish horses at the end of the XIII century will cause its abandonment and with it the definitive entrance of Aigai into oblivion... an oblivion that would last six long centuries until the visit of the first European scholars in 1880.

Foto 8.- Arched structure of access to the cavea of the Aigai theater seen from the outside.

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